Researchers have identified the ten most charismatic animals worldwide, and all of them are endangered. And, paradoxically, popularity could be making their chances of survival even worse.
Previous studies have found that ‘charismatic megafauna’ such as lions, polar bears and other much-loved animals are not representative of wider biodiversity, and conservationists have argued that focus on popular animals takes away limited conservation funding from less popular species, or threatened ecosystems.
However, a study published in PLOS Biology has found that despite these animals’ ubiquitous presence in films, commercial and toys, their threat of extinction remains high, and there is a false public perception that these animals are not actually under threat.
Franck Courchamp from the University of Paris Saclay, France and an international research team, used a variety of methods to first determine the most charismatic animals, including online surveys, school questionnaires, zoo websites and animated movies. The results ended up being ten “animals” comprising thirteen species of mammal, as elephants and gorillas are represented by three and two species, respectively.
In order of popularity, the animals are:
- the tiger (Panthera tigris),
- the lion (P. leo),
- the elephant (Loxodonta africana, L. cyclotis, and Elephas maximus),
- the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis),
- the leopard (P. pardus),
- the panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca),
- the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus),
- the polar bear (Ursus maritimus),
- the gray wolf (Canis lupus),
- the gorilla (Gorilla beringei and G. gorilla).
With the exception of the gray wolf, all of these species are highly threatened in the wild, with greater declines in recent years. Most are large, mobile species who now occupy a fraction of their former distribution, and their trajectory looks grim without a massive conservation effort.
After identifying the top ten animals, the team conducted interviews to assess public perception of these animals and the perceived threat of endangerment. In both the general public and students at a French university, half of respondents incorrectly assessed the conservation status of the animals, assuming they were less endangered. Courchamp and his team hypothesised that by continuously seeing virtual representations of these species in movies, television and online, people may receive the impression that these animals have healthy populations in the wild.
For example, the researchers showed that a French person will see on average more virtual lions (photos, cartoons, logos and brands) in a month than there are wild lions left in all of West Africa. “Unknowingly, companies using giraffes, cheetahs or polar bears for marketing purposes may be actively contributing to the false perception that these animals are not at risk of extinction, and therefore not in need of conservation,” says Courchamp.
Earlier in 2018, researchers from the Neotropical Primate Conservation Trust carried out an analysis of movies and television from 1990 to present day and came to a similar conclusion: that the use of primates, especially capuchin monkeys, may be falsely reassuring the public that there are healthy populations of these species in the wild.
To counteract this unfortunate effect, the Courchamp suggests a scheme similar to trademarking or licensing whereby companies who use threatened animal representations in their branding pay a compulsory fee for that privilege. This fee would be paid to an institution representing the global public interest in preserving biodiversity, and help with the continued lack of funding faced by conservation bodies. The authors grant that this is a complex and challenging task, but are sure a multidisciplinary approach could overcome any hurdles.
“Beyond being a conservation tragedy in its own right, the likely extinction of these species can also turn into a double penalty for conservation biology. Indeed, charismatic species remain one of the most efficient vehicles to motivate the general public to support conservation action,” Courchamp added.
Tanya Loos is an ecologist and science writer based in regional Victoria, Australia.
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